Saturday Night At Movies

Death Wish 300

By Dennis Hartley

Man of few words: Gerard Butler studies his line.

Cartoonist Matt Groening published a panel back in 1985 that was entitled “How to be a Clever Film Critic”, challenging wannabe Eberts and Kaels to ask themselves (among other things) this soul-searching question: “Do you thrill at the prospect of spending a career writing in-depth analyses of movies aimed at sub-literate 15 year-olds?” After suffering through Law Abiding Citizen, let’s just say… I’m doing a little soul-searching.

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
-M.K. Gandhi

“Revenge is a dish best served cold.”
-from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Don’t get me wrong. Basically, I am a man of peace. But I do love me a nice, cathartic, revenge fantasy every now and then (helps to get rid of the bad thoughts). After all, it’s been a popular meme in cinema, from Tod Browning’s silent Revenge (1918) to Tarantino’s Kill Bill saga (if you type “revenge” into the key word search on the Internet Movie Database, it yields nearly 5,000 titles). Call it what you will-tit for tat, squaring accounts, settling the score, quid pro quo-the desire for reciprocity runs deep in our DNA.

That being said, there are different grades of revenge flicks. When I say that I enjoy the odd revenge fantasy, I’m thinking along the lines of film narratives where the antagonist gets their “just desserts”, just not necessarily involving bloodletting (but still served up nice and cold). Examples? Wall Street, Michael Clayton, The Politician's Wife, Dangerous Liaisons, (OK, that involved some bloodletting-but I think you get my point).

Then you have revenge films in the “put your brain on hold” category like Law Abiding Citizen, the new star vehicle for Beefcake du Jour, Gerard Butler (who also produced), which has plenty o’ bloodletting. Butler is an “ordinary citizen” (uh-huh) named Clyde Shelton (we’ll address the “law-abiding” part of the equation shortly). The filmmakers, in their eagerness to plunge the audience headfirst into the squishy viscera of righteous retribution, jump right to it while the opening credits are still warm. Clyde, appearing to be a mild-mannered inventor-tinkerer type, is enjoying a Hallmark evening at home with his lovely wife and adorable little girl (obviously, they’re doomed). Enter a trailer-trash variation on Alex and his droogs, a pair of hygienically-challenged home invaders who wreak mayhem on the family, leaving Clyde maimed and his wife and daughter dead.

Fast-forward to the trial, where assistant D.A. Nick Rice (a somnambulant Jamie Foxx) is directed by his superiors to negotiate a reduced sentence plea bargain for one of the murderers in exchange for damning testimony against his accomplice (much to Clyde’s chagrin). Fast-forward another 10 years; the killer who sang is released from the joint, while his ex-partner sits on Death Row. Rice gets a disturbing visit from Clyde, who has become a somewhat ominous and brooding fellow in the interim. When the freed killer soon turns up murdered, Clyde does everything imaginable to implicate himself as prime suspect, short of making a legally admissible confession, and is soon in jail (where he actually wants to be-for reasons that are so far-fetched that it is hardly worth explaining).

From this point forward (that would be the remaining three-quarters of the film) the narrative begins to hemorrhage logic from the gaping holes in a cliché-riddled script, as Clyde turns into a cartoonish Bond villain who is somehow able to hold the entire city of Philadelphia hostage to his whims…from his jail cell. Frankly, what I found profoundly disturbing about the film is that it is loosely dressed up as a polemic about our broken justice system, when in reality it is an almost unbelievably reactionary piece of torture porn, somewhere between “Dirty” Harry Callahan’s reimagining of “justice” as a one-man court system and the Gospel according to Jack Bauer. Yes, I would agree that there are problems with our criminal justice system, but I am not so sure that vigilantism, assassinating judges, blowing up federal buildings…well, basically engaging in domestic terrorism is the best message to put out there as to how we might go about reforming it (and even more disturbing were the audience members cheering this behavior). Most likely this film will make a ton of money (Butler is scheduled to host SNL later this evening, which I’m sure will bolster those ticket sales). That makes me sad, somehow. The biggest “injustice” of all? Hollywood continues to get away with churning out this offal. Oh well, I guess there’s no use getting myself all riled up. I could shoot my eye out.